United States president Joe Biden declared the US withdrawal from Afghanistan a “success” in a defiant White House address on September 1.
“As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it’s time to look at the future, not the past”, Biden said. “I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America.”
Biden said he was “not going to extend this forever war” and was not “extending a forever exit”, but quickly added that US counter-terrorism operations would continue: “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”
In the days prior to its withdrawal, the US launched a second drone strike targeting Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) members in retaliation for the suicide attack at Kabul’s airport on August 26, which killed more than 180 people, including US soldiers.
In the operation, 10 civilians, including eight children, were killed.
The day before the US military withdrawal was complete, as the last aircraft flew out of Kabul airport, the US embassy closed and moved its offices to Qatar. Military equipment was destroyed so the new government could not use it.
After 20 years of occupation, the most powerful military and financial power in world history left defeated, as the Taliban fired celebratory bullets in the air.
“We have been fighting for this day for the last 20 years: to end this war and attack of foreigners on us and bring our own Islamic government”, declared the Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid.
“This victory belongs to us all”, said Mujahid, standing on the tarmac from where the last US plane had departed only hours earlier.
At a press conference on September 1 in Kabul, a Taliban official explained that the new rulers seek peace and cooperation with all countries, including the US.
The Taliban announced the formation of an interim government, loaded with the organisation’s hardliners, on September 8. The 33-member cabinet is overwhelmingly Pashtun, except for two Tajiks and one Uzbek. Unsurprisingly, no women or former government officials are in it.
The withdrawal was not a “success”, as Biden declared. The victor is the Afghan people, not just the Taliban.
However, big challenges lie ahead, as political factions jockey for power and the generations of educated young people, particularly women, seek their place in a country free of foreign occupation.
The withdrawal was first and foremost a political defeat of the two-decade War on Terror, which transformed the military industrial complex into a controlling force in US politics.
Withdrawing from Afghanistan was necessary to deal with new enemies, such as China, Biden noted in his “success” speech.
The US retreat was also a military defeat for the Afghan army and police, which fled city after city as the Taliban walked in. The puppet government and its army were created by the US occupiers. They had no motivation to continue fighting without US protection.
Only in that context was it also a military defeat for the US and NATO forces. The only choice Washington had, as Biden said, was to surge more troops into the country. This would have required deploying up to 500,000 troops to occupy every city and village to suppress the resistance.
It would have failed.
In 2001, the al Qaeda forces and the Taliban were no match for the invaders. They were routed. Many leaders were killed. Tens of thousands of civilians died.
The Taliban sued for peace. The US refused. It immediately turned its sights toward Iraq, which had no connection to the September 11 attacks. Saddam Hussein hated al Qaeda.
Inside Afghanistan, resistance forces melted into the villages or left the country, many went to Pakistan.
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, an indictment of US war policy, was published as a book in August. In it, Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Craig Whitlock describes how three successive presidents and their military commanders deceived the public, year after year, about the longest war in US history. The Pentagon, along with presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Biden all knew the war was unwinnable.
Some 20 years later, the former ousted Taliban regime is stronger than ever.
A vast majority of the Afghan people agreed with the nationalist Islamic formation’s opposition to foreign occupation, although there was limited support for the Taliban’s ideology.
Today, the Taliban is broader than in 1996, when it was based in southern Afghanistan among the Pashtun ethnic group (nearly 40% of the country’s population). It now includes leaders in most regions where the corrupt warlords once dominated.
Young women and men in urban areas have lived in a society that, while corrupt, allowed Western-style freedoms. They carried mobile phones and plans for a better future.
Women organised a protest march in Kabul on September 3, demanding that the Taliban guarantee their rights. According to CNN, “In spite of the risk, a group called the Women's Political Participation Network marched on the street in front of Afghanistan's Finance Ministry, chanting slogans and holding signs demanding involvement in the Afghan government and calling for constitutional law.”
A day earlier, women held a demonstration in Herat, in the country’s west, demanding the right to education and work.
The Taliban leaders know these social changes. Mixed messages have come from Taliban officials about the future role of women.
No one knows for sure what the “new” Taliban is and what it may do.
One immediate issue of concern is refugees, those seeking to leave, and Afghans returning home from nearby countries.
The Taliban announced an amnesty for those who worked for the US and NATO forces, but many don’t believe it. Civilians have been beaten and killed.
The Taliban rejects a western parliamentary system. Its concept of rule includes a spiritual leader based in Kandahar and a political leadership in Kabul. That’s how it was organised from 1996 to 2001.
Although the group swiftly seized final control of the country, the Taliban have spent more than a decade preparing to take power. Steadily expanding a shadow government called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban appointed officials down to the district level, in preparation for the moment when it was in power again.
Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada is now the supreme authority of the new Islamic government, with a theocratic role like that of Iran’s supreme leader. He was a former justice minister under the previous Taliban regime. Taliban founder, Mullah Omar, died in 2013 and his replacement was killed by a US drone in 2015.
Mullah Hassan Akhund has been named as the interim prime minister. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, and Maulvi Adul Salam Hanafi, a former member of the Taliban’s negotiating team in Qatar, have both been named deputy prime ministers.
As winter approaches, the Taliban is seeking humanitarian aid. The US and NATO are seeking to use the carrot and stick approach to the new government.
The United Nations has restarted aid flights in a few regions, and Western Union is allowing money transfers by families and businesses.
The country is suffering from a drought, and faces famine and starvation.
About US$7 billion in Afghan reserves held by the New York Federal Reserve were frozen by Biden on August 15. These funds will need to be unfrozen, along with $3.1 billion in US bills and bonds, $2.4 billion in World Bank Reserve Advisory and Management Partnership assets, $1.2 billion in gold and $300,000 in cash.
A further $1.3 billion is being held in international accounts. The funds and assets belong to the new government.
The Taliban and other declared enemies of the US are stronger today than they were in 2001. Al Qaeda remnants still exist as affiliates of ISIS.
The Taliban rejects the ideology of the Islamic State. It seeks to unite all Muslims (Sunni, Shia, Sufis and secular). ISIS sees non-Sunnis as “heretics” who should be killed. For that reason, the US military is open to collaboration with the Taliban to fight ISIS in Afghanistan.
Danish Afghan journalist Nagieb Khaja, who was once kidnapped by the Taliban and later embedded with them on a reporting assignment, told DemocracyNow! that the Taliban today has many factions. According to Khaja, the leadership is more aware of divergent concerns, including about the role of women, but some groups in areas like Kandahar are more “old school”.
It is not settled who will win, although the hardline interim government may be an indication.
One Taliban spokesperson said, women will not be permitted to take senior positions in the government, but will be allowed to continue to be educated on the basis of sharia law.
However, as Yasmeen Afghan writes from Kabul, “women — especially the new generation of young Afghans — will not bow to the Taliban's brutalities and will fight for their rights”.
Solidarity with those leaving the country is important. Those Afghans who worked for NATO forces must be free to leave, and all refugees should be allowed into the US and other countries.
What happens next depends on both the Taliban and the former occupiers.
Many human rights groups are still on the ground and have access to those in need.
It is a fluid political situation. It would be a mistake to pretend that anyone knows what comes next.
International solidarity with the Afghan people, however, must never let up.